Monday, May 11, 2009

Fictional Poets

The most recent issue of Poetry, which for some reason arrived at my house a week later than usual, not only features excerpts from a long and novelistic poem by my benefactor Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic, but an essay-review by Brian Phillips, "Fortune-tellers and Pharmacists," of some novels by poets, which begins with a quotation from the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (a character from A.S. Byatt's marvelous Possession): "The difference between poets and novelists is this, that the former write for the life of the language—and the latter write for the betterment of the world." Phillips doesn't quite take this fictional poet's assertion at face value—he'd rather read the novelist's preoccupation with "the world" as fundamentally one of interest rather than activism—but he does seem to accept the fundamental dichotomy it offers. It seems to me that this dichotomy falls apart as soon as it is scrutinized: what are Shelley's unacknowledged legislating poets, in the Romantic view which I think still dominates our poetic discourse, if not imaginary betterers of the world? And it would be obtuse to assert that the likes of Joyce and Nabokov weren't writing "for the life of the language." Nevertheless, Ash's/Byatt's/Phillips' assertion makes for a useful jumping-off point, a view of writing, whether you call it poetry or fiction, as divided into writing about something versus simply writing.

This dichotomy tends to be dialectical in actual practice, but it seems to me to be something of an uneven one: even the most abstract of poets never fully escape subject matter, and most poets, even the "skittery" ones, scarcely wish to; but there are plenty of novels and stories out there which, while of course not escaping language, nevertheless express a powerful will to escape it: to be realized as John Gardner's "vivid continuous dream" or, more baldly, as a film. Even sophisticated novelists like Ian McEwan sometimes seem sometimes to be writing film treatments as opposed to producing a work with its life centered in language. (The fictional experiment I'm currently embarked on tries to confront this head-on by appropriating, for at least one of the narrative threads, the language of the film treatment and of the camera, refusing the narration of anyone's interiority but the imagined audience's.)

What fascinates me, though, is the possibility of the "about" being not the goal for which the writing is a mere means, a vehicle, but simply a way of organizing writing, of fulfilling possibilities for writing that verse seems largely incapable of because the line as unit of utterance calls so much attention to form, without necessarily doing anything interesting with it. (Here I've put Phillips' essay in dialogue with a useful interview in the most recent Denver Quarterly with the poet and now novelist John Olson, conducted by Noah Eli Gordon, in which he talks about why he's become drawn to prose.)

One expedient means of using narrative and prose to without completely losing sight of "the life of the language" is demonstrated by the curious trend of some poet-novelists to write about, well, poets. I've already talked about how liberating it's been to me to see Robert Bolaño produce great fiction in large part by writing about poets and their inevitably doomed attempts to take total refuge in the life of language, forsaking every "about" (By Night in Chile shows us the doom of a poet of the right that attempts this, while The Savage Detectives focuses, if that's the word, on the disappearance of two poets of the Left). Liberating because it offers the perennial permission every writer needs to write about what s/he knows best (without, I hope, falling into the imaginatively foreclosed trap of "Write what you know"). Now Phillips has me interested in reading Forrest Gander's first novel, As a Friend, though from one perspective it couldn't sound less promising: a short and elliptical narrative about the sort of Byronically charismatic poet that, in the abstract, sounds completely insufferable: the sort of fellow invariably described as "smoldering" (or in Phillips' wonderfully overripe phrase, a guy that "seems to exist in some kind of sweaty harmony with the axial lean of the Earth"), in a story suffused with Gothic atmospheres, sex, and suicide. To some people that no doubt sounds like a heady stew, but my first reaction is to say no thanks, I'd rather just read the original Faulkner.

Phillips nevertheless draws me in with his claim that the novel, and the fatally attractive character of the hero, is "explicitly about poetry." The compelling center of gravity that is the book's hero, Les (my guess is that he's based on Frank Stanford, who seems to have exerted as powerful a fascination on Gander as he has on Gander's wife, C.D. Wright), is a representation of the potential power of poetry to be, as Phillips puts it, "a form of supercharged awareness that cultivates the same ethical attention as human relationships." That awareness is extended democratically, one assumes, to people, things, and words; and in Gander's novel, it proves to be more openness than Les can sustain, to judge by his suicide.

Some might judge Gander's focus on the life of a poet to be a severe limitation upon his fiction; if Bolaño escapes similar censure, it probably has to do with the increasingly epic sweep of his works, plus their political content (this is the old problem/opportunity of writers who've lived under oppressive regimes: their writing will always mean differently than that of those of us who've never known anything but Western democracy and first-world comforts). But I see it as an opening, at least potentially (we'll see what I make of Gander's hothouse prose when I encounter it directly), a way to make writing its own "about," while at the same time inviting in enough narrative world (characters, setting, events) to allow the language its range, its fuller life. It suggests to me a possible path for my own writing, for accommodations beyond the lyric or even the prose poem. And if Gander has done it right, there will be enough "about" there to interest readers of traditional fiction as well. Because I'd be lying, as I imagine the poets Phillips talks about would be, if I didn't say part of my interest in fiction wasn't the wider readership it garners.

Really what interests me now is a testing of genre. I really like what Kundera says about the novel, how each must follow its own law, be its own model. This applies to the poem too, of course, and stands behind the long conflict between the adherents of traditional forms and those who stand and shout with Creeley and Chas. Olson that FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. I want something supple enough to include characters and events and essayistic digressions, shards and skeins of beautiful language, autobiography and the totally made-up, surrealism and satire and realism. The shape it all eventually assumes will be called a novel because "novel" seems to be the most capacious literary genre form available. But I will still be trying to maintain, as I try to do in my poems, some balance between my natural preoccupation with language and my life in what we call the world. And then I will say Goe, little booke, and see what others can make of it.

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